Matt Leinart turned down millions of dollars and a job in the NFL Friday, ultimately deciding it was more fun to play football than to work at it for a living.
Ending weeks of speculation and assumptions that he would turn pro, Leinart, the Heisman Trophy winner this past season, shocked some and endeared himself to others when he announced that he would return as quarterback for his senior season at Southern California.
"This was definitely the toughest decision of my life," Leinart said during a news conference at Southern Cal. "I realize the opportunity right now to support my family by going to the NFL early. But to me, I think college football and this whole atmosphere here, and being with my friends and my teammates that I've been with for four years, that it's ultimately more satisfying. It will make me happier than any amount of money can make someone happy."
Leinart, 21, was cheered when he announced he would seek to lead Southern Cal to another national championship next season. The Trojans finished the 2003 season ranked No. 1 in the AP news media poll, although Louisiana State won the Bowl Championship Series. Southern Cal won both titles this season after finishing with a 13-0 record that included a 55-19 drubbing of Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Leinart threw for 332 yards and 5 touchdowns in that game.
With one undisputed national title, a Heisman Trophy in his case and a 25-1 career record as a starting quarterback, Leinart could have taken the NFL money and run. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he would most likely have been the No. 1 overall pick, perhaps commanding a salary beyond the six-year, US$45 million deal the Giants gave Eli Manning.
Leinart also could have stayed close to home. The No. 1 pick this year is owned by the San Francisco 49ers, a storied franchise with a history of greatness at quarterback. Leinart, who grew up in Santa Ana, California, may have been the next.
Instead, he will try to help coach Pete Carroll turn Southern Cal into a dynasty.
"OK, so I'm smiling," Carroll said at the news conference. "He's known he wanted to stay at USC. He just had to weigh out the other alternative and figure that thing out and see what it was all about. There was a lot of pressure, a lot of conversation.
"You heard what he said. He wants to play with his teammates, he loves being here, and there's no amount of money that could take that away from him. I think that's an extraordinary statement."
Leinart, who will be back for his fifth season because he redshirted as a freshman, is not the first quarterback to take a pass on the NFL to return to college. Peyton Manning did the same at Tennessee after his junior year in 1996. Although he came up short in his bid to win the national title and a Heisman Trophy in 1997, Manning was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft by the Indianapolis Colts.
Leinart could become the second college player in history to win the Heisman Trophy two years in a row. The last player to accomplish that was Archie Griffin, who won it for Ohio State in 1974 and 1975. To do that, and help Southern Cal to another title, Leinart has to stay healthy.
"If he stays injury-free, does the same thing next year that he did this year in terms of putting big numbers, he will be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft," the football analyst Mel Kiper Jr. told ESPN.